The culinary stage at the AJC Decatur Book Festival is the site for cooking demonstrations and book discussions. This year, more than a dozen food and drink writers will appear on the stage, which is located on the MARTA plaza. Photo by Tom Meyer.
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

AJC Decatur Book Festival brings top food writers to metro Atlanta

The AJC Decatur Book Festival is taking place Labor Day weekend.

Now in its 12th year, the three-day book festival hosts hundreds of national, international and regional authors in readings and panels that attract up to 80,000 people.

I’ve had Sept. 1-3 blocked off on my calendar for some time.

Ligaya Figueras is the AJC’s food and dining editor and lead restaurant critic. (Kent D. Johnson/AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Like many bookworms, I look forward to browsing through the treasure trove of great reads, but the festival also holds personal meaning. It’s a bit of a historical marker for me. I first attended the event two years ago, bleary-eyed and fuzzy-minded, having had but a couple hours of sleep after an overnight trek in a U-Haul from St. Louis. It was my first full day in Atlanta.

That day, a sizable body of food writers pulled away from the festival to meet up and chow down at Taqueria del Sol off Decatur Square. It’s where I first shook hands with my predecessor, John Kessler, and with so many other writers who offer critical voices for understanding and interpreting our culinary landscape. People who provide context to how food fits into the fabric of our lives here in Atlanta, in Georgia and in the South.

Each time the festival rolls around, I eagerly anticipate putting a face to the names of contemporary food writers whose scholarship has kept my bedstand piled high with cookbooks, memoirs, essays and histories.

Julie Wilson feels the same way. Now in her third year in programming for the festival and her second as program director, Wilson explained how far the AJC Decatur Book Festival has come, particularly with the culinary stage and its author lineup.

There has been a culinary stage since the festival’s inception in 2005, but until 2014 it was housed in the now-shuttered Cook’s Warehouse in Decatur. This year marks the second that the culinary stage is on the MARTA plaza, in what Wilson called “one of the most prominent locations within the festival footprint.”

The stage will see activity Sept. 2 from 10 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. and Sept. 3 from noon to 5:45 p.m.

As for food writers parading across that stage or at other festival hot spots, Wilson stated that organizers have worked to expand offerings. This includes bringing in authors who represent various styles of cooking from around the globe, rather than focusing narrowly on Southern cuisine, and broadening discussions to include spirited conversations with cocktail writers and drink historians.

Culinary historian Toni Tipton-Martin will chat with Mashama Bailey of the Grey restaurant in Savannah while Bailey prepares a recipe from “The Taste of Country Cooking” by the late Edna Lewis.

Michael Harlan Turkell will demo recipes from his “Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar.”

This year’s festival brings a total of 14 authors to the culinary stage and another four to the Marriott Conference Center.

“It’s not just cookbooks. It’s memoirs, history,” Wilson said. “We want for overall programming to provide a wide array of voice and narrative. The fact that we have four food-related sessions on the main stage and not just on the culinary stage speaks to that.”

Atlanta cocktail guru Jerry Slater returns once again to the AJC Decatur Book Festival. PHIL SKINNER / AJC file photo
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Who is Wilson especially excited to see on the culinary stage this year? “Steven Raichlen because he’s ‘the’ barbecue guy. Jerry Slater and Sara Camp Milam — and Michael Ruhlman,” she said.

Ditto.

Last summer, Raichlen and I dined at Cue Barbecue in Peachtree Corners when he came to Atlanta during his “Project Smoke” book tour. Raichlen is deeply versed in smoke and fire, yet he never made this food writing generalist feel inferior. In fact, I recall that we both took pause over the same thing: the restaurant’s slaw, which is a nod to Pittsburgh.

Atlanta cocktailians miss Jerry Slater’s now-defunct H. Harper Station, but we are thrilled for the release of “Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails” that he co-authored with SFA editor Camp Milam.

The prolific Ruhlman is among the home cook’s best friends with his body of cookbooks — “Egg,” “Ratio,” “Ruhlman’s Twenty,” those in his “How to” cooking series, and many others.

His latest work, “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” takes him out of the kitchen and into grocery aisles, where he traces how our food needs have shifted since the mid-20th century. His observations about our current purchasing habits are poignant and leave me with uneasy questions about where we are headed as consumers.

The main stage at the festival will see four authors with food stories to tell. These include:

» Michael W. Twitty, who penned “The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South.”

» Adrian Miller, author of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families.”

» Johnathan Scott Barrett, author of “Cook & Tell: Recipes and Stories from Southern Kitchens.”

And then there’s heavy-hitter Southern authority John T. Edge, who will discuss his new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.”

Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge is a presenting author at this year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival. (Andrea Morales/The New York Times)
Photo: The New York Times

“What I hope this book shows is that the South has proved very dynamic over the last 60 years,” Edge said in a phone interview.

“A range of radical Southerners — from Fannie Lou Hamer in the 1960s to the men and women of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the 2000s — have leveraged their knowledge gained on farms and at stoves and at tables to change the South and to change America for the better,” he said.

Edge directs the Southern Foodways Alliance, whose mission is to document, study and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. “Culture is not a product fixed in time,” he writes in “The Potlikker Papers.”

“The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South”
Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

We spoke days after violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., and he reflected on how the region continues to evolve in light of those events — and in ways that span beyond food.

“There is a long arc that, as Dr. King would have it, bends toward justice and inclusiveness and honest multiculturalism. Recent events do not dissuade me. They do challenge me as a writer to make sense of what is going on,” Edge said. “If you choose to embrace the food culture of the South, I challenge you to stare down the horror of our past and our present.”

Edge’s book tour has taken him around the country, but he is especially looking forward to the AJC Decatur Book Festival.

He explained why:

“Decatur functions as a campus for this festival. It feels like a college campus with better than average food and drink. As a writer who focuses his attention on the South and secondarily on food, I gain as much from running into a fellow writer who happens to be a novelist or poet. That kind of exchange and interplay across genres and experiences is what I value about the festival and what that campus environment affords. It helps that I can afford myself a dash into a Billy Allin restaurant for great food. Or to sneak away to Kimball House for a Ramos Gin Fizz and a round of oysters. These are bonuses.”

Bonuses, indeed.

If you consume cookbooks like novels, are a fan of food history or simply enjoy a good cooking demo, I hope you’ll meet me at the fair.

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